What needs to be true for me to ride a horse with positive reinforcement?

I wrote a bit of an essay for my private students group recently and they liked it a lot so it’s finally been promoted to a blog post.

Its about what needs to be true for us to ride our equines successfully using aversive-free methods.

I wrote it specifically for someone new to training with positive reinforcement (+R) who wanted to have a bigger picture of where the training of standing still and facing forwards or target training were going to lead, and how they translated into riding eventually.

So this is for anyone who is interested in what it takes to train a horse for riding with +R, and its sister processes – systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning.

So for clarity, my definition of training with +R means using a way to form the behaviour that does not involve any form of aversive stimulus. So that means that we do not use any traditional “aids” and there is absolutely no use of bits or bitless bridles, no rein contact or pressure on the horse’s head.

The rider’s legs hang loose down by the side of the horse and are not used to prompt the behaviour from the horse. It also means no use of conventional whips, crops or schooling whips or natural horsemanship type sticks, flags or whip-whop ropes or lead ropes or whatever.

None of those things are used to produce behaviour or reinforce it. If a headcollar or bitless bridle is worn it’s for insurance or safety reasons – and used only when something untrained-for happens to stop the horse so the rider can get off.

So, there are two key categories of training that I work on with horses I am wanting to train for riding with +R. And an extra one if you want to ride or walk out with a horse away from where they live.

Category 1) Get behaviours required for riding on cue

This means training the horse to respond to non-aversive cues (which could be one or more of audible, visual or touch – including weight shifts from the rider) for producing movement from the horse. So these are cues that you would need to be able to manoeuvre a horse:

– Stand still
– Whoa (come to a halt from ANY gait)
– Walk on
– Trot
– Canter
– Back up
– Turn the front end of the horse
– Turn the back end of the horse

Movement (walk, trot, canter) I assume to be in a straight line without turning, other than to avoid environmental obstacles.

Those manoeuvres are more or less the minimum required to be able to ride a horse out on a trail or hack – and to be able to negotiate gates.

I also assume that when training movement that the movement is trained in such a way as to produce biomechanically healthy posture.

If you have cues for the horse that you can use to produce stand still, walk on and whoa and you’ve trained those cues so that they work when you are on the back of the horse, then you can technically ride, with positive reinforcement-only cues, in a fenced off space.

With those behaviours on cue, you can get on (the horse needs to stand still for this), you can get the horse to move forwards (I’d count “riding” as being on top of a moving horse) and you can bring the horse to a stop and then get the horse to stand long enough to get off again.

But you’d of course be a bit mad to do this without the other category of training which I personally consider to be as important – if not more important!

Category 2) Desensitisation (and often also) counter-conditioning to distractions

This involves teaching the horse to be blasé and disinterested in, and to pretty much ignore everything but the cues coming from you.

If you really want both yourself and the horse to have a good experience riding, then you want a horse that is very focussed on the cues coming from you and not on other things going on in the environment.

So she needs to be confident about everything she might meet, she needs to be calm (she will be if she is well trained using +R and understands how to respond to your cues and she is confident about what he might meet) and she needs to be able to focus on cues from you when necessary.

Some people like to call this “connection” but what it means is that the horse pays most attention to the cues from us and little or no attention to “cues” or interference or distractions from the environment.

That doesn’t mean we want the horse so focussed on us that he doesn’t even notice other things in the environment – but that when he notices them he goes “Oh, it’s a dog / car / cyclist / other horse / pheasant / plastic bag / squirrel / llama / cow / sheep / quad bike / tractor ….. whatever.”

So the key thing is to work and work and work on exposing the horse to those kinds of stimuli and experiences, starting at super low strength, and either reinforcing the horse FOR ignoring them or after they’ve had a look and decided that whatever it is is now boring and ignorable, OR pairing those things with food from a great distance and keeping that distance large to begin with so that when they appear the horse thinks “Oooh dogs! My favourite!” or “Oooh tractors! My favourite!” etc etc.

This is where you really want to spend a lot of your time with a horse that you want to ride. Because it’s that ability to ignore the rest of the world and to be ready to pay attention to cues from you that can make all the difference between riding being fun and riding being frightening – because you feel you have no control.

And let’s be honest, if you are on top of an animal that has the capacity to go from nought to quite fast (I’ve never got above about 15mph on my horse but that felt fast!) or quite fast to stop, and to turn through 180 degrees or do a handstand or belly button display at a moment’s notice then you want to feel like you do have some influence over when that happens .

The other special category of training is the one you will need if you ever want to ride a horse anywhere but his own paddock or field or track.

Category 3) Desensitisation and counter conditioning to separation

Unless you are lucky enough to be able to take your horse out with his best field friends whenever you ride and those field friends are also calm and confident and well trained horses, then you will almost definitely have separation anxiety as an extra and huge challenge when it comes to taking horses out away from home whether riding or on foot.

I’d say this is something that has to be worked on ALL the time, even once you think it’s really good and improved you can never do too much work on desensitisation and counter-conditioning to separation.

Part of the key is to make sure that you start by leaving the property in distances that should be measured in millimetres and and not kilometres (I call this micro-hacking) and that the horse has a LOT of appetitive experiences away from home. The other is making sure that you become a big conditioned positive reinforcer for your horse so that he associates you and being with you with good stuff.

We know that horses do show conditioned place preference. They will gravitate towards places and things where they’ve had good experiences and away from those where they have had bad experiences. We want to be one of those places where they’ve had lots of good experiences – so that we are a portable place they will prefer to be!

When it comes to training the specific repeatable behaviours we want on cue (the first category) then my personal preference is to do as much of that as possible with target training and I always walk out and ride with a target stick so that I can use that in situations where I may need to get a horse’s attention back if I’ve lost it, or to convince a horse to want to go a direction that would not necessarily be his choice that day.

So for those just starting out who are wondering why so much emphasis is placed on standing still and basic targeting – this is why.

It’s what we need for everything else! And a great way to #recycleyourwhip, to boot.

Don’t forget that we at Horse Charming are always available for personal coaching, face to face or by video on any aspect of training horses for riding.

Have a look at our page on courses, consultations and lessons for more information on that.